While everyone might not immediately recognize the term "claymation," almost everyone can remember one or two of the unique characters or figures associated with the process.
Those of a certain era will remember Mr. Bill of Saturday Night Live fame. Those familiar with Academy Award-winning shorts might smile at the memory of The Wrong Trousers with Wallace and Gromit. More contemporary film buffs cheered the poultry politics in Chicken Run, and dedicated couch potatoes are aware of the exploits of the talking cars in search of clean fuel in Chevron commercials.
All incorporate the stop-motion animations known as claymation.
Utah State University graduate student Michael Capell knows the technique as well. He and a group of Utah State students combined the learning process with some real-world, hands-on experience to create claymation animated shorts for the Utah Jazz and several other NBA teams.
The project had its roots in an earlier workshop held last summer in conjunction with the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art and Logan's Alliance for the Varied Arts. The workshop was taught by Alan Hashimoto, Chad Griffiths and Capell. Logan's Herald Journal published a piece describing the workshop and the final project created by the participants. That's when the ball got rolling.
Jon Absey from the Utah Jazz organization saw the story and contacted Hashimoto about the possibility of doing animations for the Jazz scoreboard. Hashimoto contacted Capell, who soon set up a meeting with Absey. An agreement was reached, and Capell's animation class in the department of art at Utah State (Art 4410 and 4430) took on the project.
"The goal was to provide the class with experience in another form of animation," Capell said. "Most of what we teach is computer animation."
The project provided an opportunity to sharpen the students' animation skills, with the additional benefit of prominently showcasing their work. A chance to attend a couple of Jazz games didn't hurt the deal either.
Capell gathered a group of eight students who joined Absey and Jazz video production coordinator Michael Chidsey (a Utah State University graduate, 2004) over lunch to talk details and present story ideas. It was decided that the project should feature wrestling matches between the Jazz Bear and other team mascots. "Looney Toon" style humor was the objective, and fan excitement and involvement was the goal.
Absey and Capell began contacting teams and character designs were developed. Three other NBA teams were eventually included, making up a mascot roster that included the Jazz Bear, Blaze of the Portland Trailblazers, the Phoenix Suns' Gorilla and Clutch of the Houston Rockets.
Once the teams were on board, ideas were developed, then storyboards were created and approved. The final claymation animations were created for the Rockets, Blazers and Jazz.
With the storyboards approved, the student team of animators went to work building the clay mascot models for the filming. Props were created and Capell's wife, Brita, a 2001 art grad, and Greg Carter, sewed all the "costumes," including a Jazz jersey for the Bear.
A green screen — the background against which the figures are photographed — was created. This screen saw double duty since it was used in video production for the stage production Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris on which Capell also worked last fall and this spring.
"Making and working with the green screen for Brel came in very handy for this project," he said. "We had a fair amount of experience with it and things moved along nicely."
Once the moveable mascots were made — either out of clay or plastic foam over a wire frame — they are posed in front of the green screen and then photographed. The model is then moved into the next position and photographed once again. It takes approximately 15 of these photographs or frames to create one second of animated video. In this slow and meticulous process it can often take up to one hour to create two seconds of completed video. The animators — the people who actually move the models to set up for each shot — work with the director with a structured plan, the dope sheet. The dope sheet includes the storyboard with the timing and sequencing, including how many shots per scene are required.
One of the goals for the project was to teach the students in the animation class how to think things through and visualize how things will move, Capell said. The principles of animation are based in these fundamentals, and while all the students in the character animation class want to be animators, not all are interested in the stop-motion process of claymation.
Once the footage for the animation was created, the next steps include a home computer to remove the green screen and to insert the digital backgrounds and effects. These backgrounds and effects were created by the Utah State students using 3-D animation software, cinema 4D and Maya.
"We want to refine the film and make sure it works at this point," Capell said. "Then we get the audio together, mixing sounds, and those who could added music. One student, Mike Pofelski, was in a band so that added another layer or element to the finished project."
With a rough edit in hand, Capell and the students returned to the Jazz contacts. With the go-ahead from the Jazz, the students put the finishing touches on the animation and burned a DVD and loaded versions online for the out-of-town teams.
The Jazz animation was shown during halftime of this season's home finale where the Jazz beat the Kings 92-82. The student group has received positive feedback from the teams, and many members of the production team are excited to do more next year. Todd Bosma of the Portland Trailblazers reported that a showing there went well and the crowd liked the video. Robert Boudwin of the Houston Rockets thought the characters looked great. Michael Chidsey of the Utah Jazz summed the project up. "Thanks Michael, I think it turned out great," he said.
So, who wins the mascot battle? Perhaps it depends on what home court the animation is seen. In the Delta Center, the Jazz Bear is unstoppable.
Students and graduates who worked on the claymation project include Capell and his wife, Brita, Greg Carter, Becca Rickards, Beau Hacking, Mike Pofelski, Mark Sorenson, Julio Rincon, Tim Stowell, Tyson Burnham, Jess Ung, Shylow Barker, Nate Greenwall, Ryan Lamb and Kristi Rickards.
To see the animations, go to Capell's Web site
. (For those with cable/DSL Internet connection, the movies should start playing within five second. For those with dial-up, download should take five to ten minutes. The files are all approximately 4.5 MB for the movies.)
Capell is involved in a three-credit animation (digital) workshop offered at Utah State University through the Continuing Education program. Workshop dates are May 16-20. For those interested, contact Continuing Education at (435) 797-3780.